A high-tech camera the size of a baby grand piano is now on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, drawing admiring looks from scientists and historians who relish the chance to get an up-close look at the instrument that turned the Hubble Space Telescope from a laughingstock to a technological triumph.
The flaw in Hubble's main mirror was discovered soon after the telescope's launch back in 1990. It was a disaster for NASA, but project scientists had already been working on a backup camera for the space telescope. They decided to adjust the optics inside this replacement, the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, to compensate for the main mirror's problem.
A New Set Of Eyes
In 1993, astronauts went to Hubble and installed this new camera. At the time, Edward Weiler was the chief scientist for Hubble, and he recalls getting the first picture back after that mission. "It was perfect. It was fixed. And that was just a cathartic moment that I'll put up there with the birth of my two children," he says. "I'll never forget."
Seeing the camera again at the Smithsonian, for the first time since 1993, was like "seeing a long-lost brother or sister," Weiler says.
The camera spent more than 15 years up in orbit, taking iconic images of the universe that now show up everywhere from album covers to computer screen savers to textbooks. "The pretty pictures all came from this camera," says Weiler, who is now head of the science mission directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. "So in terms of our connection to the public, this is the camera that saved Hubble."
Astronauts brought the camera back to Earth in May, after installing a newer version during their final servicing mission to the telescope.
The Smithsonian is also showcasing another Hubble instrument brought back by the astronauts, the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR). This package of corrective optics is the size of a phone booth and was designed to send correctly focused light into Hubble's spectrographs, instruments that let scientists figure out the chemical makeup of stars and other celestial objects.
COSTAR has been installed in the museum's new "Moving Beyond Earth" gallery. According to NASA, Hubble's camera will be on display in the museum's Space Hall through mid-December, and then will be removed for display at different venues before returning permanently to the Smithsonian in March 2010.